Monday, December 14, 2015

Genetically irresponsible

Suman Sahai
It is high time that people with divergent views on GM crops sat across the table with representatives of government ministries and MPs to debate which kind of GM technology, if any, would be in the interest of India’s farmers and consumers

Recent developments in the saga of genetically modified (GM) crops have begun to reveal the fault lines of this technology. Not so long ago we had the whitefly attack on the Bt cotton crop in Punjab and Haryana causing devastating losses to farmers. Now we have the chairman of the board of directors at the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) conveying NDDB’s decision not to support the development of GM mustard any further. According to a report by Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava, the NDDB has already spent Rs 50 crore on research for developing GM mustard, but is now withdrawing from the project.

Both the Bt cotton episode and NDDB’s decision on GM mustard illuminate the problems inherent in radical new technologies like genetic engineering. They point out yet again that technology does not exist in a vacuum, that whereas biosafety is a key issue, it remains difficult to resolve. But apart from the vexed issue of biosafety, which is increasingly better understood even if not always complied with, is the demonstration that there are social and economic aspects to such technologies apart from the scientific ones.

The large scale failure of Bt cotton showed us that Bt technology is not what it is made out to be, a panacea for pest control. It is only a limited approach to controlling one pest that is programmed to fail in a country like India where pests are of many different kinds and usually intense in their infestations. Apart from the failure of Bt technology to do what it claims to do, that is control pests, the recent Bt cotton failure reveals another fault line. How will liability be fixed for the failure? Who is going to be held responsible for the massive losses incurred by the farmers in Punjab and Haryana? Under which law will you hold the technology providers, Monsanto in this case and their partner seed companies, liable for the damage caused by a failed technology?

Gene Campaign has been pointing out the need for a national law on liability and redress ever since GM technology became the favourite of government agencies. And scientists in public sector research institutions began to sing in chorus with policymakers who couldn’t wait to make Monsanto happy by aggressively promoting Bt technology. Monsanto owns the Bt gene and anyone who wants to use it has to pay licence fees to Monsanto.

Gene Campaign has also constantly underlined the fact that adopting a radical new technology (which scientists acknowledge has built-in dangers), without a foolproof legal framework within which the technology should be considered for adoption, was foolhardy and dangerous. It is irresponsible and unethical to expose farmers to new technologies without ensuring that they are adequately protected in case the technology fails. Countries do this by enacting laws governing liability and redress. So that when a technology goes wrong, the technology provider is legally liable to make good the losses.

In the case of the NDDB withdrawing support for Deepak Pental’s GM mustard, there is a clear realisation on the part of NDDB that adopting a technology has social and economic implications. Here it is not a case of whether the science is clean or not, it could be either. The question here is whether tagging the GM label is going to benefit NDDB’s product line or hurt it.

The NDDB board probably realised that linking GM mustard with all its controversies to one of their more successful products, cold pressed natural mustard oil, was like shooting themselves in the foot. The NDDB needs GM mustard like it needs a hole in the head. There is sufficient mustard being produced in the country and the NDDB is selling its mustard oil very successfully. Why would it want to hang an albatross around the neck of a product that was flying off the shelves anyway?

What advantage could GM mustard possibly bring the NDDB or the consumer? It would not be cheaper, it would not be more nutritious or have better keeping qualities and it would look the same as the natural mustard oil. On the other hand, “tainted” with the GM label, many consumers were likely to back off, affected by the awareness that GM products could be unsafe. The NDDB gains nothing from getting linked to the GM brand, it could lose a lot.

Owing to the last few years of discussion on the pros and cons of GM technology, and the hotly debated question of the safety of GM foods, there is far greater consumer awareness about the issue now than there was a few years ago. In addition to this, the refusal of technology regulators to be transparent and share information with the public has led to increasing distrust of GM technology and a greater likelihood of the public contesting its adoption.

Against this backdrop, an effective advocacy campaign by activists succeeded in showing the NDDB that supporting research on GM mustard and hence linking it with their popular Dhara brand of mustard oil could put a question mark on the latter’s market acceptance. The NDDB seems to have realised that it made absolutely no sense to martyr the Dhara brand. So it disassociated itself from research on GM mustard and discontinued its support.

For too long policymakers related to agriculture and food have insisted on hearing just one voice, that of the providers of GM technology and the scientists who have blindly pushed for it as the answer to all of India’s agriculture problems. Perhaps activists have sometimes been more shrill than necessary, but they have always attempted to highlight public concerns. It is high time that people with divergent views on GM crops sat across the table with representatives of government ministries and members of Parliament to debate which kind of GM technology, if any, would be in the interest of India’s farmers and consumers.